Over the past 12 months, the number of recorded sectarian incidents at football matches has dropped by 40%, according to statistics from the Crown Office.
The fall in the number of incidents follows the introduction of legislation in 2012 that criminalised religious hatred in connection to football.
However, officials estimate that only 15% of the drop is due to the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012.
A large part of the decrease has been attributed to the relegation of Rangers from Scottish football’s top flight and the subsequent absence of Old Firm fixtures from Scottish football.
In 2011/12, when Rangers still played in the top Scottish league, there were 700 football-related charges with a religious aggravation. In 51% of these cases the accused was affiliated with either Rangers or Celtic.
“one criminal charge for every five regulated football matches”
-Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland QC
The government has been quick to stress that the recent review of the legislation was not an indication that it was not performing as expected. A spokesperson went on to claim that the figures show that strong, effective action is being taken towards a disruptive minority of fans.
Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland QC said: “The statistics show that over the last year there has been an average of one criminal charge for every five regulated football matches which have taken place in Scotland.
“While the Act has only been in force for two full years and therefore is too soon to conclude this is a trend, football grounds have in general been a safer, more tolerant environment over the last couple of years.
“It is also reassuring to see a reduction of around 15 per cent in criminality motivated by religious prejudice, which is now at the lowest level for nine years.”
“looking for offensive behaviour instead of ensuring fan safety”
-Ex-commander with Strathclyde Police
The legislation has proved controversial since its inception in 2012. Since 2012, the Act has drawn criticism from football clubs, fans and from a number of parties in Holyrood.
The main points of contention are the ambiguity of the language and the disruptive practical implications.
An ex-matchday commander with Strathclyde Police admitted how the role of police at football matches has very much changed with the introduction of the legislation “to looking for offensive behaviour instead of ensuring fan safety—what we’re meant to be there for in the first place.”
The Act is seen by many as a knee-jerk reaction to the problem of sectarianism. Spokespeople for numerous fan groups claim the Act unfairly criminalises all football fans instead of merely the small disruptive minority.
Despite the government optimism, there remains huge public opposition to the Act. A poll conducted by Bleacher Report returned that 86.6% of people still believe the legislation was never needed in the first place.
With at least another full season before Rangers return to the Scottish Premiership there’s still some time before the effectiveness of the legislation is put through its most rigorous trials. While the decrease in hate crimes is surely welcomed by the vast majority of the Scottish public, it remains to see whether it can continue to decrease.
Anyone charged with such an offence should contact us immediately to ascertain how this would impact on any prosecution. We have defended many people facing such charges and it is important to know the intricate details of the law relating to offensive behaviour at football matches.